This social stalemate
I have noted with acute interest several utterances recently about the relevance and effectiveness of the Social Partnership, as much as I have noted the orators of these comments.
The Social Partnership in Barbados was born out of the crisis in the early 1990s when in circumstances similar to those we face today, Barbados entered a structural adjustment programme with the IMF. At the time it was a hard pill for many to swallow, especially as one of the most difficult components was an eight per cent salary cut. Intense social dialogue followed and, in the face of economic challenges, a spirit of cooperation, consultation and engagement between the three primary pillars of our economy and our society (Government, labour and the private sector) led to a resolve to lead our country out of the then crisis.
In 1993 the parties signed Protocol 1 – a Prices And Income Protocol – and by 1998 the signing of Protocol 3 had birthed the institution formally known as the Social Partnership which sought to move beyond narrow economic concerns and set itself the following objectives:
(1) The maintenance of a stable industrial relations climate;
(2) The reduction of social disparities through increased employment;
(3) The consolidation of social dialogue through tripartite consultation.
With this new social compact in hand, Protocols 4, 5 and 6 were signed in subsequent years, with each protocol seeking to advance national development on all fronts through taking in account the needs of the constituents represented within the grouping.
The last versions included issues related to health, safety, entrepreneurship, greening and environment and service excellence among others. The Social Partnership was not at any time intended to be a decision-making or policy-setting machinery, but, regardless, the spirit, even if not the letter, of its formation has meant that we expect that there would be full disclosure, consultation and engagement on all national development issues for the purpose of transparency and inclusiveness.
Membership and constituents of the Social Partnership
(1) Government through the Ministry of Labour is the central figure and acts as chair. Its presence is not meant to be political, but rather a forum encouraging dialogue on imminent policies and to essentially state the position of Government on matters under deliberation
by the partnership.
(2) Labour represents the workers who ensure the wheels of both the public and private sector turn efficiently and productively. While most of the workers represented may be public sector employees, many private sector employees are represented through the Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados (CTUSAB).
(3) The private sector represents the interests of NGOs, private corporations and business generally. The constituents are all members or contributors to the Barbados Private Sector Association (BPSA).
The parties to this tripartite arrangement encompass those charged with the development of our country – firms and households – the key drivers for economic activity.
It therefore follows that we all then have a stake in the success of the Social Partnership and its contribution to the national dialogue.
Challenges and the way forward
In any organization, the members and stakeholders will often not agree on all matters, but it is important that they all remain committed to a single objective and are not distracted into pursuing personal objectives only. In the midst of the current economic crisis, it has apparently become the norm to place the blame at the feet of the Social Partnership for having been ineffective in dealing with or addressing matters deemed to be central to our current state of affairs.
My position is somewhat different, as the current state of the tripartite arrangement is ultimately the responsibility of its members. Any challenges confronting the grouping, I believe, are symptomatic of challenges confronting the Government, trade unions and the private sector individually. We have effectively facilitated and presided over the partnership being placed into a state of ineffectiveness because our respective organizations and constituents have also become largely ineffective and have taken a reactive stance.
I have in recent times categorized the state of the Social Partnership as a “stalemate”. This position is informed by the public positions taken by all parties in their utterances, and to my mind makes it clear that each of the members to this arrangement have become overly occupied with pursuing their own objectives and those of their respective constituents only, and the spirit of the tripartite arrangement has as a result suffered immensely.
(a) Government has determined that certain actions are necessary to turn around our economic fortunes.
(b) Labour has determined that at all costs jobs must be saved even in the midst of clear issues related to productivity and efficiency across this country, and appears to be waiting for public or private sector employers to “touch” labour so it can then jump into action of a usually defensivenature.
(c) The private sector has determined that it has and is still doing its utmost to ensure that it holds strain in many regards but it too has also become largely defensive and to many appears to be demanding more than it is willing to give.
How do we therefore remove such a position of stalemate and make the Social Partnership a vibrant and meaningful force in the dialogue that is necessary to achieve full national development? There is no easy answer, but I posit that the following steps will have to be a part of the solution.
1. The true spirit of trust, cooperation and collective responsibility must be returned to this grouping and while its chairmanship remains under the Government, it is the members that will ensure that this is achieved. Free, fair and frank discussion must characterize each engagement.
2. The grouping now more than ever has to be proactive rather than reactive to each of the national issues that confront us. Government must regularly communicate and inform, labour must uphold their members to the highest standards through regular engagement and training and private sector must engage labour, Government, shareholders and investors in fuelling economic growth for our mutual benefit;
3. The partnership cannot be driven or held to ransom by the demands, wants or needs of any member or their respective constituents, rather it must be driven by national development objectives which by their very nature must consider the objectives of each member;
The Social Partnership has its rightful place as a key component of our governance structure and has been touted the world over by world leaders, economic and social agencies, including the IMF. It is ours and was born out of our own adversity, we therefore owe it our debt and gratitude and this must be manifested in the way it is managed.
It is not to be vilified and blamed – organizations are only as good as their members.